Volume 76, Number 45 | April 4 - 10, 2007

Seminary puts out new plan, and is back in good graces

By Albert Amateau

The General Theological Seminary this week said it would replace its unpopular plan for a 15-story residential tower on Ninth Ave. with a seven-story mixed-use building that conforms to current regulations for the Chelsea Historic District.

The April 2 statement by Dean Ward B. Ewing was welcomed by Chelsea preservation advocates and elected officials, who for the past year and a half have been fighting earlier plans for a project more than twice the height allowed by existing historic district zoning.

“This is a tremendous victory for the community and our efforts to preserve the hard-won stipulations of the Chelsea Historic District,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

“The major battle has been won and we should take great pride in being part of a fight that we were given practically no chance of winning,” said Robert S. Trentlyon, a founder of Save the Chelsea Historic District. “We especially want to thank [City Council] Speaker Christine Quinn, State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried for their stand on preserving the integrity of the historic district. I also want to thank the seminary for taking into consideration the interests of the entire community,” Trentlyon said.

But the scaled-back project will not generate the revenue required to restore the crumbling 19th-century buildings within Chelsea Square, the seminary’s square-block campus known as The Close between Ninth and 10th Aves. from 20th to 21st Sts.

“The increased challenges to preserve our rapidly deteriorating historical buildings with significantly diminished revenues will test the commitment of all parties involved,” said Maureen Burnley, executive vice president of the seminary.

The seminary will embark on a temporary stabilization program with scaffolding and netting “until sufficient sources of revenue can be identified to implement the full $21 million preservation plan,” Burnley said. She told The Villager the seminary has been looking for such money for seven years and is still working on the quest, which the oversized project was meant to solve.

The need to raise $21 million to make up for long-deferred maintenance was crucial in the seminary’s decision to engage the Brodsky Organization as a development partner to replace the decrepit four-story Sherrill Hall on Ninth Ave. with a glass tower. The new tower was originally planned at 17 stories with 82 luxury residential condos and a library and academic offices for the 185-year-old institution, the nation’s oldest Episcopal seminary.

The plan provoked a storm of protest that last year prompted the seminary to offer an alternative plan for a building 13 stories on Ninth Ave. with a 15-story wing set back on the west side of it. The newer plan also called for a new five-story building on an existing tennis court on the 20th St. side of The Close, which would contain the seminary’s library and academic offices.

But preservationists and block associations were adamantly opposed to anything that exceeded the 75-foot height limit in the historic district; and elected officials would not support the 13-and-15-story building, although most people accepted the five-story building on the tennis court, which remains in the new plan.

In order to build the over-the-limit project, the seminary would have had to have gotten a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The certificate, in turn, would have allowed them to apply to the City Planning Commission for what is known as a 74-711 variance available for landmarked properties where the entire revenues from the project are devoted to preservation.

The City Planning-driven uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, would then take from seven months to a year; final approval of the ULURP would have been uncertain, at best, given opposition by elected officials and a very vocal community.

But the new plan is as of right and requires only a certificate of appropriateness from the L.P.C.

Although there are no drawings yet, the seminary statement says the Ninth Ave. building would maintain the architectural integrity of The Close.

“The Polshek Partnership, architects for the Brodsky Organization and the seminary, is presently working on a new seven-floor design for the Ninth Ave. building,” said Burnley. Beyer Blinder Belle remains as the architect of the 20th St. building.

Lee Compton, chairperson of Community Board 4, which voted overwhelmingly earlier this year against the 15-story project, welcomed the reduction of the Ninth Ave. building to seven stories, but remains concerned about the project’s basic premise.

“I have mixed feelings about the project,” he said this week. One worry is whether the seminary will be able to raise the money to save The Close in Chelsea, and the other is that the project initiates non-seminary luxury residential use in The Close. “If G.T.S. can’t raise the money for preservation, it might have to leave Chelsea and we’d be stuck with a potential square block of high-end residential,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come to pass, but it’s a concern and the community board would be derelict to ignore it,” Compton said.

Duane applauded the seminary’s decision to replace Sherrill Hall with a building that conforms to the 75-foot height that the community-sponsored Chelsea 197A plan established 10 years ago for the Chelsea Historic District.

“I continue to be hopeful that the seminary will be able to remain in Chelsea and restore and preserve its many landmarked buildings while still conforming to the Chelsea Plan,” he said. “We’ll continue to brainstorm with the seminary to identify public and private financing for the preservation of this important Chelsea institution,” he added. There is some state historic preservation funding and the possibility of federal preservation tax credits, he suggested. “All the acrimony over this development is behind us and I expect the Chelsea community to do all it can to help the seminary survive and thrive in our historic neighborhood for many years to come,” Duane said.

David Ferguson, a 50-year resident of Chelsea, suggested in an opinion column in Chelsea Now, a sister newspaper of The Villager, that a community-initiated matching fund might work.

“If the seminary comes up with a plan acceptable to the community, I pledge $10,000 to be matched by other donors to start a fund for deferred maintenance,” Ferguson said several weeks before the newest proposal.

Burnley, however, was skeptical of the offer.

“Pledges of donations to institutions are usually made in a letter to the institution and we haven’t received a letter,” she said. “But we’d be glad to get it.”


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